What We Can All Learn from a Hammer

January 27th, 2012 by

A colleague told me about an incident at one of her dealerships, where a technician hit his own knee with a hammer and filed a workman’s comp claim. In the story, the man was in a hurry to fix a rusty part on an older vehicle.  He propped the piece of metal against his leg for support, swung a hammer at the part- missed the part but did some serious damage to his kneecap.


What is your first reaction?


My first thought was that this guy must not be too bright. My reaction is a surface reaction. It lets me hear the story without really having to think about what is going on. I judged that this is one incident, with one individual who brought this on by his own thoughtless actions. This kind of thinking is a very neat way of hearing the story without having to think about it or change the way I do business.


But of course, intelligence is not the real problem in the story. The real problem is that we’ve all done something thoughtless like this when we’re in a hurry.


The root cause of this incident is not the hammer or the technician. They are only part of a larger system that is built around a set of priorities.


Looking at this accident though the eyes of an investigator, there are a number of things to consider if we want to actually prevent accidents like this from happening:


  1. The technician was so focused on meeting a deadline that he took an obvious risk. What could be done in the work environment to balance doing a job quickly with doing a job safely?
  2. Who is responsible for worker safety?Leaving worker safety up to the individual worker gets mixed results. Many workers believe whole heartedly that the customer comes first. They do whatever they can to meet difficult deadlines, often taking unnecessary risks (or compromising the quality of services rendered). Workers need to know that safety is actually the top priority- and it needs to be communicated clearly through actions and policies.
  3. Consider the process. Where is the proper tool for the job located relative to the work station? Is there a way to make it less time consuming for the worker to do his job safely?


As a safety advocate, I try to learn from every accident or near miss, and to extract useful guidance that workers and management can act on in the moment. The lessons from the this accident have little to do with the the hammer or the knee. Looking at the bigger picture, there is a lot that can be learned from any accident or near miss as long as we don’t start by assuming that what happened is some kind of anomaly.

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